The couple that hosts the annual Art-A-Whirl trolley tour is a rather authoritative source — Nick Heille has lived in Northeast all his life and proudly reports that he has chosen a plot to be buried here as well. Nick and his wife Rosie helped found the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (NEMAA), they are often spotted at gallery shows, and they continually add to a personal art collection that represents about 40 artists.
So there is plenty to talk about on tours that reach about 12 studio buildings on a route covering 13 square miles.
“I chatter and try to keep people occupied to distract from the fact that the little bus fits 50 and we have upwards of 75,” Nick said.
He points out the original Gluek brewmaster’s home, and he describes the dozen lumber mills that once lined the river bank. He talks about the history of the Casket Arts building, which produced caskets until the late ’70s — some of the doors inside actually have casket handles on them.
Despite all of their years at art shows and community meetings, the couple is still in awe of the arts district.
“It’s one-of-a-kind,” Nick said. “It’s literally like walking off the end of the world and never coming back. It’s awesome in terms of size.”
He laughs at riders that step off the trolley at the Northrup King building promising to see everything and be back in an hour — the building is home to about 200 artists.
“That’s what I mean when I say it’s like walking off the end of the world,” he said.
At the first Art-A-Whirl in the mid-’90s, Rosie said they were surprised to learn that so many artists worked in Northeast. They decided to volunteer at future events around the time they retired. Nick helped convince the Minneapolis Police Department that Art-A-Whirl would not be a public safety issue, and Rosie remembers printing 1,000 single sheets of paper for the tri-fold brochure — a far cry from the thick Art-A-Whirl catalog available today.
“It’s been an exciting time,” Rosie said. “I never thought it would get so big.”
Art-A-Whirl originated in 1995 at the Thorp building on Central Ave., where a group of artists were trying to figure out how to sell their art and make it more accessible. One of the artists went up to the bathroom on the second floor, looked out at the Whirl-Air-Flow building (where DG Inventive is today), and envisioned art suspended in the air that the community could see and discuss. When Bohm Commercial Real Estate President Jon Sander first heard the idea for a huge public art show in his building, he was a bit skeptical.
“My first thought was that the building’s going to be burning down and people are going to be suing us for insurance claims,” he said.
The event was a success, however, and Art-A-Whirl grew quickly as more buildings joined each year. Thousands of visitors turn out for what has become the country’s largest open studio tour.
“Northeast is SoHo on steroids,” Nick said.
Neither Nick nor Rosie are artists themselves. Nick is a retired Hennepin County IT specialist, and Rosie volunteers at the San Miguel Middle School library in South Minneapolis.
Their backgrounds don’t make them any less passionate about advocating for artists, however.
“The reality is artists are seen as the change agent, and then developers and people in politics jump on it,” Nick said. “That’s the reason why I got involved. … I want to protect the rights of artists.”
In addition to serving as founding members of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, Nick and Rosie advised the city on its Arts Action Plan, which is meant to strengthen the artists’ presence in Northeast. They also founded the annual Spiritual Art Show, which is a juried exhibition of religious artwork that is now in its 11th year.
“We want to get churches to realize the quality of the art that’s out there,” Nick said.
One of this year’s winners is an oil painting that depicts Demond Reed, a four-year-old Minneapolis murder victim, surrounded by angels outraged by his senseless death. Nick said the painting is representative of the high-quality work he wants to highlight.
Nick and Rosie’s art collection at home includes a wall with 24 fish, almost all of them made by different artists. Nick calls their home the “classic tattooed lady,” because they never know where to put the next piece of art.
The couple also runs a side business that connects art buyers to Northeast work, so they can sprinkle broad knowledge of local artists into the trolley tours.
“They’re some of the most committed people in Northeast,” said NEMAA President Susan Wagner Ginter. “They really get around and go to shows and introduce themselves to artists.”
Ginter said the trolley has helped visitors see the true size of the arts community.
“A lot of people just think of Northrup King,” Ginter said. “The trolley really broadened the geography of the area for visitors.”
This year, the Northeast Dinner Bell Meals on Wheels will have a new presence on the trolley. Riders will have the chance to draw on bags that the program will later use to distribute its meals.
“We want to get the public involved in making art for a good cause,” Ginter said.
Of course, Nick and Rosie are perfectly happy to help.
“If you’re engaged, you can have a positive impact,” Nick said.
Reach Michelle Bruch at email@example.com.